Crossing the Divide

By: 
Jen Kocher

Amanda Bench recalls how thoughtful her late husband Darren was, as she holds a card he gave her on Mother’s Day of 2018. Since his sudden passing in October, she has found strength to move forward with the help of her family, her faith and her friends. “He was always happy, always smiling,” she said. “Although it’s painful, he wouldn’t want me to be crying, he wouldn’t want me to be sad.” (Photo by Amy Menerey)

Jen Kocher

NLJ Correspondent

 

It was just another day, or so Amanda Bench thought.

That morning, three months ago, began as they always did — with a text to her husband, Darren, who split his time between Newcastle and Las Vegas, Nev., where he worked as a civil engineer. For seven years, the couple kept two households, visiting back and forth several times a month. In her mind, it was the best of both worlds, though she knew some people saw the arrangement as odd.

But for them, it worked. She got an escape to the city when she needed it but could also return to Wyoming, where she feels most at home. They spent weeks at a time together, and she enjoyed road-tripping with him back and forth. She used to joke about seeing her husband more than did most wives who lived in the same home with their spouses. 

He’s probably just busy, she thought that day, and went about her daily business.

Later, when she still hadn’t heard from him, she sent him another text.

“Honey, I haven’t heard from you all day,” she wrote. “Are you OK???”

Silence.

An hour later, she wrote, “I hate this, I’m worried about you. I haven’t heard from you all day.”

Finally, she called her daughter, Madison, a college student living at home in Las Vegas while she attends school, and asked her to check on her dad.

Madison knocked on his bedroom door, and when he didn’t answer, she walked in. Darren was face down on the floor. She called 911, then her mom. They later learned he had suffered an apparent aneurism in his brain.

Looking back, Amanda said she isn’t sure how she’d made it through that day. The first thing she did was called her best friend, Ginger Fields, Wayne Wilson, her pastor from the Church on the Hill, and his wife. The three, along with the rest of Amanda’s friends, immediately rushed over to stay with her through the night until she could get a flight out of Gillette.

As they drove along Highway 16 through an early morning October snowstorm in the dark, Amanda looked at the passing shadows and prayed. Somehow, she got on a plane, was picked up from the airport in Las Vegas and made it to the hospital, where Darren was hooked up to tubes and machines. His brain was full of blood, and he was unresponsive.

She sat by his side for two days, while her friends and family gently told her it was time to let him go. There was no hope for recovery, the doctors said. He’s gone. It’s just his body lying in the hospital bed.

Amanda found she could not believe their prognosis. There were signs, she said. Every time she spoke to him, the machine beeped as his heart raced.

For two days, Amanda prayed so hard that her jaw hurt. She remembers being prone in the hospital chapel begging for a miracle as she sobbed uncontrollably. In the hospital, while holding his hand, she told Darren that if it was time for him to go be with Jesus, she’d let him go.

A tear fell down his cheek. She knew it was time and signed the release.

It was the worst moment of her life.

Now, nearly four months later, as Amanda looks back on that early October day, she can’t recall too many of the details, other than the gut-wrenching feeling that everything was changing, and she’d never be the same.

The dreams she had all that week that he was planning to leave her suddenly made sense.

Prior to that, she just felt crazy. To the point where she called her cousin, a doctor, and told her that she felt sick but didn’t know why. She had a terrible dread she was losing him. Even her friends had commented on her general malaise, telling her she didn’t seem like herself.

It had been a warning, she sees now, but who knew that that sort of pain was anything one could actually predict?

The past few months, though unbearable in many ways, have led her to a moment of discovery that yes, she’s suddenly on her own, but maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. God has big plans for her, she believes.

She’s planning to take it one day at a time and let her see where it unfolds.

In the meantime, she’s appreciating the life she had with Darren, and the husband he had been.

“He was the most generous person I’d ever met,” Amanda said. “Never mad, always in a good mood and helping anyone he could.”

Especially her.

She was spoiled beyond belief, she admits. Not only did he fund the lion’s share of her cat rescue operation that she runs with Fields, but he also helped finance her business venture, Sweet Country Suites and Spa. On top of that, he’d donated games for the youth group at church, where he enjoyed cooking for various events. He also built three crosses in the church rec room, which make her think about him every time she sees them. 

Darren was a workhorse. Very talented at everything he did, she said. At his funeral, she was surprised to hear people tell her about all of his projects — including having his prototype picked as one of the four finalists for the border wall on the U.S. border with Mexico — but also about his talent and the ways his passion and generosity had touched other people’s lives.  

“Everyone liked him,” she said. “He was always positive and fun to be around.”

What’s more, he adored her, and supported everything she did.

She remembers when they first met in Las Vegas, where she’d moved after high school for the simple reason of wanting to leave home for a bigger city and job. She’d been bartending at a country club where he belonged. When she first met him, he was married. Then later, after he was divorced, the couple talked, and Amanda immediately felt that spark.

He was the one.

On one of their first dates, his transmission went out and he had to drive the car backwards. Where some guys might flip out, Amanda noted, Darren had taken the debacle in stride.

“Oh, at least we get to go backwards,” he’d said, happily, as if that option had been a treat.

As she looks back on her 16 years with him, she knows she had been given a gift.

Now, it’s time to pass it on.

“I don’t want this pain to be for nothing, you know?” she said, as her eyes pooled with tears. “I want to use it to help others going through the same thing.”

It’s time for her to step up, she said, and learn to not only take care of herself but also to find her purpose in life. She’s taking it one day at a time. 

Sometimes that means three steps forward and two steps back, but it’s progress.

 

ROAD TO RECOVERY

Getting through the holidays was the first step. Yes, it was horrible in a lot of ways, she admits, though her daughter was home from college and Amanda’s mother lives right across the street. She’s counting her blessings, of which there are many, including her daughter’s recent success nabbing a coveted internship with the Brookings Institute while she finishes school at UNLV.

Unlike the rest of the conservative family, Madison is a staunch liberal who had heated discussions with her father over his role in helping to build the wall.

“He didn’t talk about it with me,” Madison said, “but we had plenty of heated debates.”

Darren had been her father since she was just a kid, so though not biologically connected to him, he left a lasting impact on her life.

“He was the best dad,” she said, looking down at her knees where she sat beside her mother on the couch with a cat draped over her lap. A fire warmed the living room as Madison enjoyed the last day with her mom before heading back to school.

“The real grieving will begin as soon as she leaves,” Amanda said, joking that she would officially become the proverbial “cat lady,” single with a houseful of cats. 

“It will be okay,” Amanda said with a weary smile.

She’ll finally learn to cook, now that she has to fend for herself.

“Boy, I was a spoiled wife,” she said. Darren, who along with supporting the family financially, also loved to cook and often insisted that his wife relax while he rolled out dough for homemade pasta.

His favorite place while in Newcastle was behind the stove, she said, picturing him stirring a bit vat of chili as he cooked for one of their numerous church events.

The hard part, she noted, is repeating all of these rituals alone.

And though she still cries pretty much every day, Amanda laughed as she wiped away a new set of tears. She knows she’s getting there. Every day she thinks about how lucky she was to have had the kind of love and marriage she had.

“Some people don’t even get to experience that at all,” she said. “I was lucky, and I know God has big plans for me.”

Amanda won’t pretend to understand what those plans might be, though she feels that focusing on her spa as a healing center might be the first step.

In the meantime, she rereads her texts from her husband and kisses his photo and stares at the “I love U” smudge he’d written in the dust on the kitchen window, a memento that will remain until she can bring herself to wipe it off.

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